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Environmental Advocates Press For Changes to Biden’s Equity Tool

May 19, 2022, 9:58 PM

Environmental equity advocates pressed the Biden administration Thursday to make further changes to a tool federal agencies are planning to use to pinpoint disadvantaged communities that deserve more federal dollars to rectify decades of environmental pollution.

The White House Council on Environmental Quality’s screening tool has drawn criticism from community and environmental groups for excluding race as a factor in zeroing in on marginalized communities for fear it might violate civil rights law barring the use of racial factors in programs receiving federal funds.

But that approach flies in the face of data showing health impacts from extreme heat made worse by rising global temperatures continue to “disproportionately impact communities of color,” such as in the Phoenix area, said Vania Guevara, a public lands fellow with Chispa Arizona, which advocates for Latino communities.

“To remove race as a factor when making these decisions is upholding a system of discriminatory practices upholding white supremacy,” Guevara said in remarks to the a CEQ forum. She cited research that has calculated some communities of color face summer temperatures as much as 13-degrees hotter than more affluent and predominantly white communities.

The CEQ forum was the administration’s latest effort to get feedback on its still-in-development Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool, to be used governmentwide and drawn from existing efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency and states identifying disadvantaged communities suffering from pollution. The CEQ tool aims to help agencies fulfill President Joe Biden’s pledge to put 40% of the benefits from climate, clean energy, clean water, and certain housing funding in underserved communities most affected by pollution.

Methodology Concerns

Beyond multiple online “listening sessions,” CEQ has received nearly 2,400 public comments on the tool, many of them criticizing its decision to exclude race as a data point but also criticizing methodology that could inadvertently overlook marginalized communities.

Some advocates urged CEQ to use more indicators to identify disadvantaged communities.

Dana Johnson, senior director of strategy and federal policy for WE ACT for Environmental Justice, said an advisory panel identified 90 data points that could underpin the tool. The recommendation came from the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, launched by Biden in 2021 to advise the White House on environmental equity issues.

CEQ’s tool would consider communities disadvantaged if census data suggests they exceed one or more environmental or climate indicators but also are considered low-income or disadvantaged based on other socioeconomic indicators. CEQ has argued that even without using race as a metric, those other measures would more than likely alert the agency to communities of color suffering historically from pollution.

While it’s “well-documented that communities of color suffer disproportionately” from some burdens, other data points should be sufficient to identify communities “shouldering a disproportionate share” of environmental burdens, vulnerability to climate impacts, and underinvestment, CEQ said in a February announcement on the tool.

Arbitrary Thresholds

Beyond its exclusion of race, CEQ has been criticized for what some groups say is an arbitrary decision to set thresholds that could mean ignoring many deserving communities.

For example, the tool would consider census tracts disadvantaged if they land in the 90th percentile for at least one environmental or climate metric, when combined with two socioeconomic indicators such as income and education.

But CEQ’s approach in practice would mean excluding communities in census tracts if just over 20% of the population is enrolled in undergraduate or graduate programs, according to comments from a coalition of bus and other public transit advocates including the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, and Ride New Orleans.

That would exclude low-income communities with “even a minimal student population” such as New Orleans’ remote Algiers neighborhood, they wrote.

The White House council also should take into account car ownership and the degree to which the community is comprised of renters, they wrote, “as renters are more vulnerable to changing economic factors and at a higher risk of displacement.”

CEQ earlier this month extended its comment period on the screening tool until May 25 in response to calls from environmental equity and community groups.

To contact the reporter on this story: Dean Scott in Washington at dscott@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Zachary Sherwood at zsherwood@bloombergindustry.com; Renee Schoof at rschoof@bloombergindustry.com